Dr Brij Lal

A documentary history of Indian indenture in Fiji

Excerpts from:  Crossing the Kala Paani

Edited by Brij V. Lal, 1997 : Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School of Pacific and Asian History,

The Australian National University


Much is often assumed but much less actually known about some of the more important events, episodes, processes and institutions of the Indian indenture experience in Fiji. This volume of select documents is an attempt to contribute to a more informed understanding of that experience which, it is widely agreed, has helped to lay the foundations of modern Fiji. It is also hoped that this project might add a sentence or two to the recent conversations about the nature and meaning of the indenture experience in other Indian diasporas such as Natal, Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica and Surinam.

The documents included in this collection cover the first fifty years of Indian presence in Fiji, that is, the period between 1879 and 1930. With the exception of two papers by Totaram Sanadhya, all the extracts are unpublished or largely inaccessible. I resisted the temptation to include relevant material from secondary sources which would have made this volume more unwieldy than it already is. In any case, much of the published literature is readily available to scholars. For the same reason, I have not encumbered the text with extensive commentary or supplementary explanations. The extracts have an integrity and context of their own and lend themselves to rich, multi-layered readings without editorial intervention.

Fiji was the last major importer of Indian indentured labour. By the time migration to Fiji began in 1879, Indian indentured labourers had been emigrating for forty five years, beginning with Mauritius in 1834, British Guyana in 1838, Trinidad and Jamaica in 1845, Grenada in 1856 and St Lucia in 1858, St. Kitts and Natal in 1860, St. Vincent and Reunion in 1861, and Surinam in 1873. By 1916, when emigration ceased, over one million Indians had crossed the Kala Pani, the dark, dreaded seas.

Of these, some sixty thousand came to Fiji, forty five thousand from North India and fifteen thousand from the South. In the North, the impoverished regions of eastern Uttar Pradesh, the poorbea districts, furnished the largest number of migrants: Basti, Gonda, Faizabad, Sultanpur, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur. Bihar had been an important recruiting ground in the early phase of indentured migration, but by the 1870s, its importance had declined. Fiji’s Bihari migrants came in the early years and settled in Rewa and Navua. In South India, which had traditionally supplied labour to Malaya, Ceylon (as it then was), Burma and Natal, the bulk of the Fiji recruits came from Madras, Arcot, Tanjore, Krishna, Godavari, Vizakhapatnam, Coimbatore and Malabar. In these districts as in the north, migration overseas was largely a continuation of an already well established pattern of internal seasonal movement.

Over the years, many a derogatory myth has been built around the origins and character of the girmityas, which have been used to remind their descendants of their proper place in Fiji’s racially compartmentalised society. In fact, the migrants represented a slice of rural India, and all groups and classes were represented in the emigrating population in rough approximation to their size in the recruiting districts, including such castes as Kurmi, Kori, Chamar, Thakur, Brahmin and Ahir. The Government of India insisted that a shipment of every hundred men be accompanied by forty women to facilitate the emergence of a stable family life on the plantations. In the case of Fiji, this quota was always met, though it took a long time for the normal sex ratio to emerge in the Fiji Indian population. The paucity of women created social and moral problems of its own, including suicide and murders, and forced inter-caste as well as inter-religious marriages.

Migration is a complex process. Leaving one’s familiar social and cultural world for some strange and distant place is never easy. It could not have been so for a land-locked people to make their journey across unknown waters to the far-flung corners of the globe. But they did leave, most probably hoping to return after acquiring the promised fortune in the tapus, islands. Many did return: from Fiji, 24,000 went back eventually. But the majority stayed on, trapped by the promise of a better life, dread of a long return sea journey, the fear of rejection by family and friends of those who had broken caste taboos, and by the encouragement of a government keen to develop a local pool of labour supply. Time passed and memories of India faded as people formed new, cross-caste relationships and developed new attachments to their adopted homeland.

Most of the girmitiyas are gone now, but their legacy remains. They were simple people from humble backgrounds who arrived in Fiji with nothing except a determination to succeed, to make something of themselves after risking a long spiritually polluting sea journey. Girmit was in the main a story of great hardship and suffering, and many were broken by that experience and left by the wayside. But the majority survived to reconstruct their lives from the fragments of a remembered past. The girmitiya pooled their meagre resources to educate their children, aware that education was the only way out of a condition of permanent dependence and servitude. Religion was revived, and social and cultural organisations established: the Arya Samaj, Sanatan Dharm, Muslim League, Sangam, Gurudwara Committees. By the beginning of the 1930s, when this volume ends, the worst was over. A semblance of normalcy was beginning to return and a different set of challenges faced the children of girmit.

The volume opens with the Agreement-Girmit-which bound the indentured labourers to a period of service in Fiji. This was one of the pivotal texts of indenture. The terms of employment are clear; they specify the period of service, the nature of work to be performed, the number of days the immigrants would be required to work, the wage rate, medical facilities, living quarters. The agreement is impressive in its specifity for a time when the very notion of a contract between an employer and employee was a novelty. But there was a large gulf between promise and possibility, which has been pointed out by most scholars of indenture in Fiji and elsewhere. The labourers were not always able to earn the wage they were promised; the rations stipulated in the agreement were sometimes inadequate or substandard, and medical facilities rudimentary. Nonetheless, an agreement was an agreement, and official files reveal immigrants frequently appealing to the authorities to observe it or enforce its compliance. In a few cases, the labourers’ complaints went to the Colonial Office in London.

Once recruited, the immigrants did their chalan (journey) to the port of embarkation under the supervision of the recruiters. At Calcutta and Madras, they spent seven days before boarding the ships; the period could, of course, be extended if the ships did not arrive in time or if the quota had not been filled. The new life in the dipu (depot) fostered a sense of companionship and togetherness cutting across the barriers of religion, caste, and place of origin. These were reinforced on the long voyage across the kala pani. Altogether eighty seven immigrant ships made the journey between India and Fiji, the sailing ships of the late 19th century taking slightly over two months and steamships a month. Leonidas was the first ship followed for the next three decades by others with such names as Sangola, Fazilka, Chenab, Indus, Ganges, Syria, Danube, Sutlej, Jamuna, Clyde, Moyne. JM Laing’s piece describes aspects of life on the voyage out. It is clear that crossing the kala pani was more than just a physical ordeal.

About a thousand indentured immigrants arrived in Fiji every year, most to work on the plantations owned by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). The obligations and responsibilities of both the employers and the employees were laid down in the Indenture Ordinance of 1891, which itself was borrowed from the West Indies. There are, for example, detailed provisions on medical inspection of the plantations, conditions of indentures and re-indentures, accommodation and rations, and punishments for breaches of the labour regulations. The legislation is impressive in its detail and provides us with an understanding of the institutional and legislative framework of indenture. But it says nothing about the reality on the ground.

About a thousand indentured immigrants arrived in Fiji every year, most to work on the plantations owned by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). The obligations and responsibilities of both the employers and the employees were laid down in the Indenture Ordinance of 1891, which itself was borrowed from the West Indies. There are, for example, detailed provisions on medical inspection of the plantations, conditions of indentures and re-indentures, accommodation and rations, and punishments for breaches of the labour regulations. The legislation is impressive in its detail and provides us with an understanding of the institutional and legislative framework of indenture. But it says nothing about the reality on the ground.

Indenture was a harsh experience for most girmitiyas, and not necessarily in the physical sense only, although that was of course important: back breaking work in the fields, punishment for incompletion of tasks, excessive mortality rates, crowded conditions in the lines. It was a painful experience in the cultural and spiritual sense as well, when the values, assumptions and institutions of the old world lost their meaning and relevance in the new environment. It was for good reason that the girmitiyas called indenture narak, which means hell. The papers by Burton and Totaram draw our attention to the difficulties the girmitiyas encountered on the plantations. Burton, a Methodist missionary who arrived in Fiji in 1902, tried to convert the Indians to his faith. He failed, but remained their friend nonetheless. In his 1910 book, Fiji of Today, he wrote about the evils of indenture and campaigned for its abolition. His influential role in the anti-indenture struggle was widely acknowledged. Totaram Sanadhya, a Brahmin from Ferozabad, had to register as a Thakur, warrior-cultivating caste, to improve his chances of recruitment. He arrived in Fiji in 1893 and settled in Wainibokasi. He is the only girmitiya to have left behind a written record of his experiences. His Bhut Len Ki Katha is a sensitive account of how he survived indenture and his other contribution tells us about the survival of Hindu culture and religion in the early period. Sadly, there is no similar account of Islam. Totaram left Fiji in 1914. His account of his Fiji years, Fiji Dvip Men Ikkis Varsh (My Twenty One Years in the Fiji Islands), played a critical role in arousing Indian opinion against the indenture system, eventually leading to its abolition.

Indian indenture had begun to attract attention in humanitarian circles in Britain by the second decade of this century. Pressured, the imperial government sent commissions of enquiry to the colonies to ascertain the truth of the various allegations against the system. Not surprisingly, the official enquiries produced sanguine accounts of the experience of the Indian communities in the colonies, which failed to stem the rising tide of Indian public opinion against indenture. Among those who played a major role in the anti-indenture struggle was CF Andrews who made two visits to Fiji and wrote sensitively about the social and moral evils of what he saw. For his sympathetic portrayal of their condition, the Fiji Indians gave Andrews the title of Deenabandhu, which means a friend of the poor and the downtrodden.

Andrews and Burton had their critics who thought their criticisms exaggerated, even unfounded. Florence Garnham was not among them, but her relatively mild criticism of the conditions in Fiji disappointed some of her supporters, including Burton. Garnham, a member of the London Missionary Society, was sent by women’s organisations in Australia and New Zealand to report on social and moral conditions in Fiji. Her enquiries reveal shortcomings in the system, but they are presented in a moderate tone, without the impassioned moral indignation of the other critics. Her contribution reveals the different shades of opinion held among sympathetic outsiders. But there was no empathy or sensitivity in the contributions of an anonymous writer to the Fiji Times and Herald, for whom the roots of social and moral problems facing the Indian community lay not in the local conditions but in the very fabric of Hindu social and spiritual system. The critics of indenture are castigated. The message is clear: the Indians in Fiji were far better off than their compatriots in India or elsewhere and so should not complain about the (relatively mild) hardships they encountered in Fiji.

On 1 January 1920, all indentures were cancelled, prompting reappraisal and revised proposals for alternative immigration schemes. In one of the most moving official assessments of the indenture experience in the colonial files, HE Snell finds much wanting in the way the colonial administration dealt with the problems of the Indian community. Cruelties in the system degraded everyone associated with it, Snell argues. Meanwhile, employers threatened by imminent labour shortage, devised new plans to encourage the emigration of free Indians into the colony, up to ten thousand men, women and children, to be followed by a review of the status of the Indians in Fiji. A delegation consisting of the Receiver-General and the Bishop of Polynesia, representing the Fiji Planters Association, was sent to India to plead their case.

The government of India was sceptical, but set up a committee to explore the proposal with the Fiji delegation. The Indian committee received assurances from the mission that the political position of Indian immigrants in Fiji would be equal to that of all other British subjects resident there. The guarantee echoed a famous passage in a despatch from Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India, to the Government of India in 1875, which said that Indians resident in the colonies would enjoy rights “no whit inferior” to those of the other settlers. India then agreed to send an official fact-finding deputation to Fiji to enquire into the conditions of the local Indians and to assess its suitability for the settlement of more (free) Indians. The deputation was unimpressed, its report so critical that it was never published. The most important sections of the report are reproduced here for the first time, giving a glimpse into some of the most pressing problems facing the free Indian community in the 1920s.

By that time, European political dominance, which had long underpinned the colonial order, had begun to be challenged. The Government of India wanted the Fiji Indian community enfranchised and given equal representation on the basis of a common electoral roll. The demand was resisted both in London and in Suva. In the end, the Indian community was allocated three communal seats, and contested election for the first time in 1929.

In the last extract in the volume, JR Pearson, the first Secretary of Indian Affairs, writes about the social and economic situation of the Fiji Indians on the eve of his departure from Fiji in 1930. By then, the Indians had settled on leased land in the sugar cane belts of Fiji. Their population had increased from 60,000 in 1920 to 85,000 in 1936 (by nearly 27 percent). A new society was in the making, more conscious of its rights and more assertive of its place in the Fijian sun. Pearson provides a sanguine assessment, but he was also aware of the need for a more sympathetic government role in the life of the Indian community: streamlining the arrangements for leasing land, providing better agricultural education, improving educational facilities, reforming marriage laws, and facilitating better administrative links between the Indian community and the colonial government. In another report not included here, Pearson wrote about the acrimonious religious and cultural disputes in the Indian community, between Hindus and Muslims, between Sunni Muslims and the Ahemadiyas, between the Arya Samaj and the Sanatanis, and urged the government to keep a close watch to prevent open conflict.

By 1930, the Indians had been in Fiji for half a century. This volume attempts to document the major events and episodes in the life of the Indian community in this period. The extracts give us a sense of the transition, of the frameworks and parameters within which the girmitiya, lived and worked, of what well-meaning outsiders thought about them, of the ideas they had for abolishing or reforming the system. The voice of the girmitiyas themselves is missing from the archival records. Their laments and complaints, disappointments and sorrows, survive in folk songs and stories. Scholars have attempted to recover and “interpret” the girmitiya voice with varying degrees of success. The list of books and articles at the end of this volume includes some of their works. Meanwhile, I hope that this collection will assist in that vital work of reconstruction and reinterpretation.


I acknowledge my debt to those who assisted me in completing this project. The National Archives of Fiji allowed me access to records in its custody. The Division of Pacific and Asian History in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies of The Australian National University helped defray the cost of compiling and editing the volume. Lila Lingam Moorti and Sai Qarikau typed the manuscript. Jude Shanahan prepared the text for publication and Neville Minch prepared the map and assisted with the layout of the cover. To my family, all I can say is that without your love and support, this project, like much else I have done in recent years, would not have been possible. I hope that one day, when Niraj reads this, he will understand why I was not always there on the sidelines, cheering his team, like other normal dads.

Brij V. Lal
May 14, 1998